Federal court dismisses dangerous charges in lawsuit that threatens First Amendment

camillefassett

Reporter

logging
WikiMedia Commons

Abusive ‘racketeering’ charges in a lawsuit brought by a logging company against Greenpeace and other environment groups have been dismissed. The case is a prime example of how powerful corporations bring lawsuits primarily in an attempt to drain their critics of resources and intimidate them into silence.

The lawsuit brought by Resolute Forest products against Greenpeace Inc., Greenpeace Fund, Greenpeace International, Stand.earth, and five individuals is a classic SLAPP lawsuit—”strategic lawsuits against public participation”—which is a tool often used by corporations to suppress First Amendment-protected speech. While this lawsuit was brought against advocacy groups, news organizations are also particularly vulnerable to them.

SLAPP suits usually focus on specious libel claims, but this time, Resolute Forest went a step further and included racketeering charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)—a controversial, sweeping law that provides for huge penalties for acts performed as an “alleged criminal enterprise.”

It’s a lawsuit against environmental groups, but one with huge implications for political advocacy more generally, and for press freedom. SLAPP lawsuits—especially with RICO charges—often intend to hold small nonprofits responsible for acts committed by unaffiliated groups or individuals.

This type of application of the law could have had severe implications beyond the case, and ensure all sorts of advocacy organizations and even news outlets.

As we wrote last year in our coverage of a similar lawsuit by a pipeline company, which attempted to hold Greenpeace, a small environmental news publication, and other groups responsible for alleged criminal activity by other entities:

“The press freedom implications of this claim are chilling. Say a news organization like the Washington Post publishes a story about activists boycotting internet services providers who refuse to treat digital content neutrality. Under this legal theory, internet service providers could conceivably sue the Washington Post and try to hold it responsible for the actions of unaffiliated individuals or groups because they read the story and took independent action.”

A California judge thankfully tossed out the racketeering and charges, and a majority of Resolute’s defamation claims. Greenpeace and the other organizations named in the lawsuit will continue to fight the remaining charges.


Greenpeace USA General Counsel Tom Wetterer issued the following statement:

“From day one, it was clear Resolute intended to bully legitimate advocacy organizations and forest defenders by abusing laws designed to curtail the mafia. The judge made it clear this would not be tolerated...Today’s landmark decision should be a lesson for other corporate bullies attempting the same underhanded legal tactics, like Energy Transfer, that they will not succeed in attempts to criminalize free speech. We will continue to speak truth to power.”

It’s worth noting that Resolute Forest Products is the largest newsprint producer in North America. While newspapers across the country are doing important work of publishing the news and keeping the public informed, they are doing so on materials produced by a company that targets advocacy groups and attempts to silence free expression.

This isn’t the first time Resolute Forest Products has sued environmental advocacy groups—this is the logging company’s second defamation case against Greenpeace, the first of which was brought against Greenpeace Canada and is still pending. And Resolute Forest Products is far from the only corporation that has used just tactics to attempt to criminalize legitimate advocacy—groups that advocated against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline were hit by a $900 million lawsuit accuses them of defamation and racketeering, and essentially calls them a criminal enterprise. We have previously documented how SLAPP suits can also intimidate and even bankrupt news organizations who publish critical coverage.

These lawsuits post huge threats to political advocacy and press freedom. While most of the charges against Greenpeace were dismissed, some do remain. In our mind, the entire lawsuit should be dismissed immediately.

Read more about Journalism

Out-of-control North Dakota prosecutors still pursuing reporter Amy Goodman, even after judge dismisses riot charge

Why are prosecutors attempting to throw reporters in jail for documenting protests?

North Dakota needs to immediately drop its outrageous charges against journalist Amy Goodman

It's blatantly unconstitutional to prosecute reporters for doing their job.  

An independent journalist explains how the Freedom of Information Act is broken

There are many side effects to being stonewalled: disbelief, anger, disillusionment, and, of course, repeating yourself. I have experienced them all. Since early 2012, I’ve been trying to access evidence ...